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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

South Korea: Seoraksan National Park‏

November 20th, 2010 · No Comments

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For the past two years I have been looking forward to seeing the fall color in Korea’s most popular national park. When Margaret Leesong visited me in Boulder on November 1, 2008, she told me how beautiful Seoraksan National Park was at this time of the year. Margaret is the director of international business relations for i-Sens Inc. in Seoul, South Korea, one of the world’s leading blood glucose meter and test strip manufacturers. Her company invited me to visit Korea last October, but I had to cancel at the last moment because I couldn’t travel after an emergency hospitalization. But they renewed their invitation this year and near the end of my 17-day visit to Korea I finally got to Seoraksan.

Seoraksan is actually north of the 38th parallel, which from 1945 to 1950 divided North and South Korea. The Korean War began then when North Korean forces crossed than line and invaded South Korea. Now, however the border between the two countries is a few miles north of the 38th parallel on the east. And that is where Seoraksan is. Still, I came closer to North Korea here that any other place that I have visited in Korea.

I went to the park with Cheol Jean, who I met a few days ago at the International Diabetes Federation’s convention in Busan. Cheol, who calls himself Charlie Jean for the convenience of Westerners, invited me to go with him. The only problem was that Charlie speaks little English, so we needed an interpreter. Margaret’s husband, Alex Leesong, volunteered for that assignment.

Charlie is the CEO of Argos Publishers Inc. in Seoul and a writer about diabetes. He leads an active life. After learning in 1981 that he had type 1 diabetes, Charlie has continued to enjoy many activities including Taekwon-do, judo, rock climbing, Taek-kyun, cycling, hiking, weight training, and yoga. And at Seoraksan, Charlie, Alex, and I went hiking and rock climbing together.

Alex is the i-Sens general counsel. He earned a Ph.D. in biophysics from Purdue University in Indiana, where he and Margaret married more than 21 years ago. At that time he legally changed his name from Inkeun Lee. The new family name, Leesong, combines his and Margaret’s original family names, something quite rare in Korea but not unusual in the U.S. Alex then earned a law degree from the University of Sydney in Australia before returning to Korea.

Both Charlie and Alex were extraordinarily generous with me yesterday. Our trip to the mountains took more than 12 hours, including a 3 and 1/2 hour drive each way. Charlie drove his Daewoo automobile. We all like Western classical music, and it played softly in the background until we got out of the range of FM 93.1, the same Seoul station I have been enjoying on the radio in my hotel room.

The severe cold snap in Korea broke as soon as it started. This was a good day to visit Seoraksan National Park to see the beauty of fall.

With a prediction of a 12 degree Celsius high for our destination, Alex commented that it was “not bad.” At 54 degrees Fahrenheit the weather was indeed pleasant.

After an hour and one-quarter on the road we stopped at the Gapyeong tourist stop for Charlie to check his blood glucose. He told me that he checks it 10 times a day, which is being diligent indeed.

Charlie had brought a Thermos of hot water for tea, which we drank from the trunk of his car. At this rest stop Charlie gave me a copy of each of his first three books about diabetes, one of them that he signed with the inscription, “Dear David. I am pleased to have met you. I hope you are always healthy and happy. Charlie.”

All of Charlie’s books are in Korean. While Mongolian editions came out recently, English-language editions are still in the works.

An hour later we made one more rest stop. We had a tailgate snack of dried and cooked lotus root, a popular and tasty chip here.

At this stop Charlie gave me a most exquisite gift. It is an acrylic cube of two inches in each dimension with three reproductions of classic Korean paintings embedded in it and visible from different sides. Shin Yun-bok, born 1758, better known by his pen name Hyewon, painted each of them. I treasure my souvenir of this beautiful and generous country.

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Portrait of a Beauty” Depicts the Standard of Traditional Beauty in the Joseon Era (1392–1897)

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Scenery on Dano Day” Depicts a Scene on the Korean Holiday with Semi-nudes Bathing in a Stream, While a Woman in a Bright Red Traditional Dress Rides a Swing, As Two Young Monks Peek in the Background

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"A Boating Party on a Clear River"

A Boating Party on a Clear River”

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We ate lunch in Sokcho, a city of about 90,000 people, all the way across Korea on the East Sea. Seoul lies in the west; its Incheon Airport is on an island in the Yellow Sea.

We chose a restaurant that specializes in wild boar. Delicious indeed, it came will all the usual trimmings of about eleven side dishes.

Wild Boar for Lunch

Wild Boar for Lunch

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Then we were off to the the park itself.

The Mountains Are Steep

The Mountains Are Steep

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Near the entrance to the park we went to the Shinheungsa Temple, where a 48-foot statue of the Buddha stands. The statue, which is dedicated to the reunification of North and South Korea, is big enough that inside it is a complete temple.

The Woman at the Left Did 108 Prostrations

The Woman at the Left Did 108 Prostrations

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Both Charlie and Alex told me that they are Buddhists. Their practice, each said, is however minimal.

We wanted to see as much as we could by taking the cable car, or tram, which runs up Mount Seorag (sometimes written as Mount Seolag). Everyone else wanted to do the same, so we had a two-hour wait.

We used that time to take a 6-kilometer round trip hike up a riverside trail to Biseondae, a big rock in a stream at a bridge crossing. Along the trail we saw the maples and other trees all decked out in the fall glory at the height of the season. Besides me, the only Westerners in sight were a young German couple.

On the Trail to Biseondae

On the Trail to Biseondae

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Back at the cable car base, I experienced Korean-style crowding for the first time. Alex estimated that about 95 percent of the throng of tourists were Korean, with less than 5 percent Chinese. While Japanese tourists are common in Korea, he says that they usually come to Korea to shop because of the good prices in this country.

Crowded

Crowded

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Charlie, Alex, and I managed to be the last ones in for the ride up, which was a good thing. Right by the door facing east with the sun at our back, I was able to photograph the colorful mountain landscape on our ride up.

Going Up in the Cable Car

Going Up in the Cable Car

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When we reached the end of the cable car ride, I was in for a surprise. I thought that we would just take a leisurely stroll around an observation platform. However, we weren’t close to the top of Mount Seorag yet. A trail led up to the peak, and we took it.

After about half an hour, I could see the peak of the mountain at 901 meters (about 3,000 feet). The climb up was so steep that I told Alex that I would pass on climbing it.

If They Could Climb It, So Could I

If They Could Climb It, So Could I

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But on the ride up the cable car Charlie had pointed out a large whitish rock outcropping across the valley. From where I was packed into the cable car I couldn’t take a photo of it even over the heads of the Koreans in the car with us, although I am a foot or more taller than almost everyone else in the country. Alex realized that the only place where we could see the rock outcropping, called Ulsan Rock, was from the very peak of Mount Seorag. So he urged me on.

While the climb up was indeed as steep as any peak I have ever climbed, it was safer than most because it was all solid rock — no loose gravel. And the steepest place had ropes that we could use to pull ourselves up. At the peak, Ulsan Rock was indeed visible across the valley.

Ulsan Rock

Ulsan Rock

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I also saw and photographed the huge Buddha below, Mount Seorak to the west, and the ocean to the east. The climb was well worth the effort.

The Buddha Below

The Buddha Below

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Charlie Climbed the Peak

Charlie Climbed the Peak

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Alex at the Peak

Alex at the Peak

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Even I Reached the Peak

Even I Reached the Peak

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Our return from Seoraksan came after dark. We stopped for dinner at the small town of Inje, where we ate at a traditional Korean restaurant in a private room for the three of us. As usual in Korea we removed our shoes at the door to the room and sat on thin cushions on the floor. We had a delicious meal that we each ate out of big bowls by adding in about eleven vegetables of all sorts (side dishes in Korea are always an odd number), plus beef and fish all together.

On this wonderful trip I discovered yet another way to travel around Korea by taking the cable car. But more importantly I discovered and experienced the incredible generosity of my Korean friends. I know now that I need to raise the standards of my own generosity.

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